Modern Day Vaquero

This Capital District photographer first met Ruben Amezcua, modern day vaquero, (and soon to be model,) while searching for the perfect “horse in the sunset”  photo opportunity, in New Mexico. 

I was one of the East coast photographers specializing in American West photography, that had been   invited to attend an artists reception, and opening, of  the Hubbard Museum of the American West Annual Fall Photography Exhibition. A number of my prints had been juried in to the show. The Hubbard Museum is located in  the  mountains, above the Mescalero Apache Reservation, in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico.  The Museum specializes in all things western, and is associated with the Smithsonian Museum.  World famous collections of hand-tooled saddles, spurs, horse drawn wagons, antique guns, native American pottery, and much more, are housed under the museums roof. The world famous Ruidoso Downs racetrack is located close by.  Horse country for sure.

The photography reception  had ended, and I was going to return to my hotel. Walking out  of the Hubbard in the late afternoon, I saw the “golden hour ” of sunlight, streaming in to the valley. For those who are not photographers, the “golden hour” is  that special soft light, that comes in the early morning, or late afternoon, that photographers  treasure. So,  three piece suit, heals and all,  I jumped in to my rental, and sped down Highway 70. The sun sets fast, so I was desperately looking for horses to film, when I spotted horses located down a long ranch driveway. The ranch sign said  “Rancho Cielito Lindo. “

I realized that in this part of the country, most ranchers carry guns. One should use caution in approaching a ranch. My passion for the “perfect shot” overrode whatever hesitancy I had.  Photographers are like that.   I decided this was my chance, as the sun was setting fast. I pulled the car down in to the ranch property. Ruben Amezcua  was standing in the driveway, talking to someone in an old  pick-up truck.  I breathlessly asked if I could shoot, pointing at my camera. He said, “Si Senorita!” and off I went. After an hour of shooting, it was getting dark. I decided I needed to make a proper introduction, and then get myself back on to the main highway, and into town, as my hesitancy had now resurfaced.  I  was leaving in the morning for other locations anyway, and needed to pack.  Walking back to  Ruben,  my photographers eye started framing up  a unique portrait of the  working horseman in front of me.  Heck – he made a better subject than the horses!  We sat down and spoke for a while,  and  then  I decided to take the big step. I asked him if he had ever modeled before. He said “No”,  so I talked him into a few shots the next morning. He readily agreed. I was happy. Quite a day for me!

The next morning, I arrived back at the ranch. Ruben was already out, tending to the horses. I did notice a nice new hat and fancy boots.  I told him where to stand. He asked a few questions, then I shot away.  Before my very eyes, Ruben became a model. It was as if he had modeled all his life! Now that I know Ruben much better,  I will share with you,  that  he has more boots, shirts, belts, jackets and vests than anyone I know. He may not have gone to modeling school, but he loves good clothes and fancy boots,  and has the wardrobe to back it up. When I had  Ruben stand by a fancy horse trailer that morning, he quickly started assuming the poses of an experienced model. After a time, he voluntarily went back and changed into a different outfit, which  provided a  “new” look for the next round of photographs. I realized that this modeling business was not difficult at all for Ruben. I  also saw that  he had the potential to “pop,” or really stand out, in photographs. I had a real winning combination. Little did we know that this quick project was going to be so easy, and that he would become a favorite model of mine, over the years. 

A Modern Day VaqueroThe very first photography session with Ruben produced an image called ” New Sheriff In Town,” which became a juried choice in the Hubbard Museums 2010 annual photography show! Ruben was tickled pink. I gifted him with that print as a thank-you, and  produced a photo calendar for him, which he took  back to Mexico that Christmas,  to show his Mom, Dad, and extended family. Apparently I have made him a minor celebrity in his hometown. Speaking of family, Rubin shared that his father, Ruben Amezcua,  and grandfather, Francisco Amezcua,  were also “vaqueros” or old time Mexican cowboys. Vaqueros excelled in horsemanship, and were very stylish.  Now it was making sense. I know where Ruben got his sense of style!  

Some other facts I have come  to know about  Ruben, is that he is the  first  member of his family to become a successful business owner in the United States. He left his hometown of Zamora, Michuacan, at 22. He first hired on in 1975 with a local female ranch owner, down the highway from his current ranch. After 26 years of working for that ranch owner, the ranch was passed on to her family. Ruben had developed a successful client base, and soon found himself in a position to start his own successful horse boarding ranch operation, through his other passion – competition bicycling!  He  now co-owns  his dream ranch, “Rancho Cielito Lindo,” with his good friends Dr. Roger and Carol Lynn Beechie.   He currently can board up to 52 horses, and is in the process of getting  two horses trained for racing at nearby Ruidoso Downs thoroughbred race track, for the first time.  Ruben has also been a volunteer firefighter,  White Mountain Search and Rescue volunteer,  and served in the Lincoln County Sheriff  Posse.

While in the old days cattle rustling and outlaws might be the biggest threat to horse and cattle ranch owners, today, it is rattlesnakes, drought and wildfire. Ruben has to regularly dispatch  rattlers from the numerous horse trails that radiate out from his ranch, up into the mountains.  Rattlers love basking in the hot sun, and are hard to see in the dust and dirt. Horses and snakes do not get along, and a rearing, panicked  horse can easily injure even the most experienced rider.

Weather can be another threat. While rare, when rain falls in the Southwest, it  can flood areas quickly, because of lack of vegetation.  One should not be near the deeply  eroded creeks,  or arroyos, as they are known in the Southwest, when flooding rains are predicted, or you’re going to have the ride of your life.  Water rushes in  quickly,  with no warning at times.  Not a safe place to be. 

The biggest threat of all, and one that can stop any successful ranch operation, is the threat of wildfires. As anyone that stays on top of national news knows, wildfires have been numerous  in the Southwest states in the recent past, due to severe drought conditions. The summer of 2011 was no exception. The White wildfire winds whipped up to 60 miles per hour, causing the fire to explode over timber and dry grasses, near Ruidoso, and surrounding areas. The wildfire came within a half mile of burning Rubens ranch down. In fact, he was told to evacuate. Ruben said large  hot ashes could be seen floating in the air – torches to tinder dry barns. For any ranch operation, it is a big job to move up to 50 horses, and needs to be a coordinated effort. Horses panic easily around smoke and chaos, and only an experienced horse man or woman can handle them, if at all. Ruben reported that the fire came so quickly over the mountain and across the highway, that his customers, who sometimes live miles away, had no time to move their horses. He said he was prepared to do what he had to do, so that no horse suffered. He also had his truck packed for an emergency getaway. Miraculously, before the fire reached the ranch, the wind changed direction suddenly, the temperature dropped, and the humidity came up, stopping the fire from reaching “Rancho Cielito Lindo.” The White  wildfire consumed over 6,500 acres,  destroyed five homes, and took the life of one horse, in and around the Ruidoso and Lincoln National Forest area.

Ruben took me out to see the burned areas. It was amazing to see how pin-point accurate the firefighting helicopters had been in saving some houses and barns. Due to the speed of the fire, the  helicopters would dump  flame retardant  around  only the perimeter of the homes, stopping the flames, while anything beyond the small perimeter was charred, or burned to the ground. You could see the circle of the retardant, and how effective it was. The burn areas presented a sobering sight. Kudos to the New Mexico firefighters. It was an extraordinary effort. Incidentally, Smoky the Bear was found, many years ago, in another Lincoln Forest wildfire. He survived, and went on to become the world famous symbol against careless smoking, launching the now famous advertisement,” Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” advertisement. 

Despite the inherent risks or running a horse ranch, Ruben says working  with horses “is in his blood,” and he will never leave that line of work. Ruben is a true “modern -day vaquero,”  and  now,  he can  add to his resume, “model!”

“Modern Day Vaquero” by freelance photographer and writer Sue Clark — www.suephotography.com

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